Patti Smith and Her Band, Webster Hall, 29 & 30 December 2013
Patti used to play every year at this time. The 29th was the show for the diehards, we’d huddle in the cold outside for an hour or two before sprinting up the stairs for the front. I used to joke that we could bowl inside Bowery Ballroom on those nights, no one else bothering to get there much before the show started. (That was until “Just Kids” and the book award and god bless, the world suddenly started showing up at the Bowery in December.) The 29th was usually loose and sloppy, mistakes, chatty Patti. The 30th was “the birthday,” and she was usually on her game for that. Then there were the New Year’s Eve shows. I would either go to the 29th and the birthday or the birthday and New Year’s, but always at least two, how on earth could I be living in proximity of the possibility and not go to at least two? I would go solo to one and the boyfriend would come along to the other.
On my solo nights, without fail I would be tired or sick or it would have snowed like crazy and I’d grumble about not going or going and selling my ticket but I would suck it up and go because, again, how could I NOT GO when I LIVE HERE and she would always do or play or say something that would have me riveted to the spot, usually in tears, feeling as though she was speaking directly to me, exhortations about working hard and being free and finding your courage and just the physical presence of her, STILL DOING THIS, on that stage, would be enough to lift me through the dark of the winter and to the other side of things. The New Year’s shows were a shitshow if you weren’t down front but if you were it was confetti and friends handing out hats and noise makers and everyone arguing whose phone we were using for the countdown and then “People Have The Power” at midnight, before sprinting down to the corner of Allen and Delancey where you can always get a cab, even on New Year’s Eve.
Then she retired, or claimed she was going to retire, and made it two years before coming back again in December, this time at Webster Hall, for the 29th and the birthday. So I bought my tickets and got on that line again. The 29th was the sloppy show, it was unfocused, full of drunk yelling assholes. It was front loaded with songs from Banga which is actually quite a fine album but Patti wasn’t entirely together, so the band wasn’t at their best and they kind of meandered around. Until Patti says, “This is for Lou” and begins “Beneath the Southern Cross.” This song is one of the band’s finest moments any year, it’s this throbbing surge of guitars and voices and Jay Dee hitting the drums with the mallets and it is shimmering and writhing and a complete and total funeral dirge. At the end she yelled, “LOU… YOU ARE NEW YORK” and that was it, I was gone. I was breathless and in tears when it was done, and so was she.
Things picked up from there, and while it was not the best night I have ever seen her do, I was still glad that I was there, standing there remembering all of this during “People Have The Power” when she reminds us that 2014 is the Year of the Horse and we need to work and be free and be healthy and strong, like your punk rock grandmother.
Tonight was the birthday, and although I felt like death on a cracker I was standing on that line in the bitter cold one minute after 5pm and rushing for the rail like it was the middle of the summer and I was in fine health. I knew if I got the rail I could make it even if I was sick and if I was sick, at least I would have seen Patti. And like always, I was right.
At 9:02 sharp the flashlight blinked from the back of the stage and the lights went down. Andy York, who is playing second guitar these days, comes out carrying what looks suspiciously like a bow and I’m making Jimmy Page jokes although, I mean, it’s Patti, so I can so dig it, whatever it is going to be.
But what I don’t expect is for her to walk up to the mic bathed in this black purple light and for the band to hit an initial cord and her voice to sing, “I.. don’t know where I’m going…”
It can’t be anything else than what it is. It’s like she’s uttered some magic incantation and I just can’t even move, or blink, or breathe.
“But I’m gonna try for the Kingdom, if I can…”
It is amazing and spellbinding and sad and tragic and magnificent, all of those things, and I am too stunned to react much, and am still feeling that way all through “Dancing Barefoot.” I mean, the problem with “Heroin” is that you can’t really cheer for it. Lou used to have that problem, people would yell for it, and the famous admonition was, “You know, when I say that it’s my wife and it’s my life, do you think I’m fucking kidding?” There was a gasp of recognition once people realized what was going on, and then a few more at that point when the rest of the audience recognizes it, and there were a few yelps but mostly, either people were like me and snapped to fucking attention, or they didn’t but picked up on the vibe and came along for the ride. It worked. It was unbelievable.
Tonight was a much different night. She was focused and the band was together and it was a thundering locomotive on that stage. The Banga material shined brightly, it was sharp and crisp and didn’t sag. She dedicated “Capital Letter” to Jennifer Lawrence (and was wearing her mocking jay pin all night which I couldn’t get a photo of because her hair was covering it). “Free Money,” the thing all the idiots were yelling the night before, appeared early enough to get the attention of anyone who might be wandering due to unfamiliar material. “Free Money” was the band in high, high gear, driving through the song, sharp, searing, as good a version as you would have gotten back in the day. “Because the Night” was prefaced by a beautiful story about the first time she met Fred, but was interrupted by the maroon yelling KICK OUT THE JAMS WARGHDHEIDHD in the middle of it.
The Lenny set tonight was a medley, him and Tony Shananan and new addition Andy York taking turns, “Talk Talk” and “Open Up Your Door” (during which Patti came out and bopped around) followed by “Open Your Eyes.” At the end, Jesse Smith came out from backstage carrying a cake (she actually came out a song earlier, which is the only reason I have video) and then was followed closely by Michael Stipe, carrying his own cake, completely clad in orange. In a lovely but not well thought out gesture, Webster Hall dropped one of the nets of balloons it had in place for tomorrow night; Patti loved it, but now the stage was full of balloons and for the rest of the night we’d hear random loud POPs as they met their fate. This was followed by a cover of “Stay” by Rihanna, which she pulled off with typical aplomb.
Then, again, for Lou, another ethereal “Southern Cross,” another amazing moment, power rising off that stage, rhythm and drive and energy and sheer fucking magic. I would hold that rock and roll moment against any other band right now or ever, quite frankly, and I stood there feeling bad that not more people I know who loved music were seeing it. It was sweet and pure and powerful and all of it, everything, washed through me yet again. So much love. So much gratitude. When I saw her for the first time when I was 15, just months before she called it quits in Florence, I never ever thought that I’d be seeing her year after year after year at both my age and hers. It is the luckiest, most beautiful thing.
We jumped around to “People Have The Power” and the Babelogue and “Rock and Roll N****r” and waved goodbye, one more year, one more time, happy birthday, Patti Lee, we’re glad you’re back.
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Tags: patti smith